NASCAR's playoffs are winding to a close. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have already locked themselves into the Championship Four finale race with timely wins. That leaves six other drivers racing on Sunday at Martinsville for the two remaining slots in the Championship Four. This is what each driver needs to do to keep their season alive.
If either Larson or Bell, or a driver outside the top-eight in the championship wins on Sunday, two drivers will advance on points. As of the current standings, that's William Byron and Ryan Blaney. If any driver in the group of six trying to make the next round wins—including Byron and Blaney—just one driver makes the final round on points. That is tremendous news for William Byron, who is 20 points ahead of Blaney and 30 ahead of the next driver still alive in the points race.
A margin that big has Byron, the 25-year-old Hendrick Motorsports racer in the middle of a six-win breakout season, in excellent position to make his first Championship Four. Thirty points represents just under half the points available on a given race weekend, and two strong stage finishes can have him close to a mathematical lock before the checkered flag flies. The margin is more narrow if just one driver advances, but Byron is still in excellent shape. Unless Blaney has a fantastic race, Byron struggles to stay in the top ten, or one of the other four drivers fighting for a spot wins, Byron is in a great position to make the next round on points if he has at least a modestly successful day.
That puts enormous stress on everyone else. Ryan Blaney bounced back after an overturned disqualification two weeks ago to stay alive in the points race, but he cannot count on two spots being available for a driver to make the next round without a win. He is not in a must-win situation, but he has to score a ton of points and apply pressure to Byron in case someone else does win. Blaney, a two-time winner this season, has finished between seventh and tenth in each of the last six seasons. After more than half a decade of good-not-great finishes, making the Championship Four would be an enormous step forward in his career.
A group of three Toyota drivers between ten and 17 points behind Blaney are in a tougher position. Since the possibility of a win-and-in driver elsewhere in the field exists, all of Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin are in worse shape than it may look. They can catch Blaney on track, but their chances to catch Byron would hinge on him falling out of contention early. With so few drivers left in contention, any of the three would need big stage points and a strong finish to make the next round on points.
Reddick, the first driver on the outside looking in, won his first three Cup Series races last year before joining 23XI Racing in the offseason and rattling off two more this year. Truex is a former champion. Hamlin is arguably the best NASCAR Cup Series driver to ever get this far into their career without winning a title and is starting down another wasted opportunity. All three have a dream to keep alive, but their position in the standings would most likely leave room for just one other Toyota to join Bell in Phoenix.
At the end of our group of six, Roush Fenway Keselowski's Chris Buescher is 63 points behind Byron and 43 behind Blaney. After playing such a big part in RFK's resurgent season, Buescher will almost certainly see his season end unless he can win on Sunday.
In the modern Cup Series format, the next two weekends are the ones that decide who win NASCAR championships. These moments may just be manufactured drama, but the results can still be electric. After all, last year's final playoff spot was decided by the single greatest thing anyone has ever done in a stock car.
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